sad music

Image by Stas Svechnikov

Sometimes a sad song like Whitney Houston’s "I Will Always Love You" (Listen Here) popularized by The Bodyguard (Watch Here) is the only thing that can keep us from jumping out of our skin. A good ole' fashioned tear jerker.

It is puzzling that we seek out more sad music when we are already feeling sad. Why? Is it because we want to be sad? Or perhaps it's because misery loves company? As you will see, the answer is surprisingly closer to the latter. Let's take an example, a break up. We have all been there and we have all played an anthem of sadness to...well, cheer us up, right? Wrong. In particular, one frequently visited anthem of sadness that comes to mind is Whiskey Lullaby by Brad Paisley and Alison Krausse (Listen Here). It's a strange part of the human condition; however, find out why sometimes there’s no better friend than your favorite REALLY REALLY sad song.

Sad music when feeling sad

The pleasurable effects of music-related sadness has puzzled scientists for ages. People oddly seek emotional experiences that they would otherwise not find pleasant in real life. Some obvious examples: watching an horror movie, playing 1st person shooter video games, reading a fiction novel about forbidden love, or listening to a song about "putting the bottle to your head and pulling the trigger" (i.e., Whiskey Lullaby). These are things we would never volunteer for in real life.

Perhaps, sad music allows you to experience a variety of emotions without the real world consequences of actually experiencing these sad events. Whatever the real reason, everyone does it.

What is wrong with us? A team of researchers from across the World (Eerola, Peltola, & Vuoskoski, 2015) sought to answer just that: what are the reasons and motivations for listening to sad music in everyday life? The answer will surprise you.

Is it simply masochism?

There have been several theories suggested in the past, including:

  1. Sad music isn't perceived as negative;
  2. Sad music is used for mood regulation;
  3. Sad music is a tool we use to relive certain memories and understand/solve unwanted feelings; or
  4. Sad music is bad for you but hits a masochistic pleasure point.

While these points all have some merit, the results of the Eerola et al. 2015 study were none of the above. Lucky for you, the primary purpose of listening to sad music was not masochistic pleasure (in case this is the option you picked). Rather, it is the empathy you feel from listening to sad music that really drives you when you run to your car and sit in the parking lot listening to Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. (Listen Here). You're not alone—sad music is your friend.

Sad music is your stand-in sensitive friend

People seek out social contact when feeling sad. Think about what your friends (unwittingly) suggest to you immediately after your break up: you have to get out of the house and meet people. However, if you've tried this first-hand, you would have found that you don't want to be around a bunch of happy people at the bars when you are sad. This gives you two options: find the nearest funeral or put on your Beats Headphones to listen to some harmonic heartbreak.

This is very interesting: when people were asked whether sad music was pleasurable, they often answered that sad music is unpleasant, irritating, makes one feel anxious, or tired (Eerola et al., 2015, p. 119). Thus, the popular notion that people simply like sad music is probably overestimated. So no, you're not crazy—you're actually normal for blaring some sad tunes when feeling sad. Ultimately, to alleviate all your fears that your unshakable sad music habit might be harmful, the researchers found that at the core of this phenomenon is one big idea: sad music serves as your surrogate for empathetic social contact with a friend in times of loss. People need social contact when feeling sad to cope, especially when experiencing a social loss (i.e., a break up). This is healthy.

girl sad book

Image by Ermin Celikovic.

Put simpler

Taylor Swift really did hit the jackpot when she came out with hit after hit of break up songs. In fact, she was creating you extra friends to have in the event you experienced social loss. Ms. Swift is such an angel, don't you think? So next time you experience loss and sadness, remember this:

Sad #music is ur friend—make a playlist today of ur favs so u won't be alone next time. Share this

See Eerola, T., Peltola, H., & Vuoskoski, J.K. (2015). Attitudes toward sad music are related to both preferential and contextual strategies. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 25(2), 116-123.